Wednesday, June 20, 2012
The Subtly of a Poet: The Art of Eric “Christo” Martinez
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Ten years. Ten long years!
Yet the walls and bars of a federal penitentiary couldn’t contain his creativity, and Eric found himself drawing, tattooing, and enjoying music while he moved from one cell to another across the American landscape.
While in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania, Eric met fellow inmate, Hendrick Gil. Gil’s artwork—outside of prison—was described as “chameleon-like transformations,” earning him the title of “Master of Change.”
Yet Gil, a renowned Dominican Republican artist, was also incarcerated as a ringleader in a drug possession case. According to court records, “Hendrick Gil had…convictions and sentences for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute over five kilograms of cocaine, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and traveling in interstate commerce to carry on a business enterprise involving cocaine.”
Two drug dealers -- with incredible artistic talent -- stuck in federal prison.
But as providence would have it, the similar past of Gil’s life resonated with Martinez; the two shortly became friends.
Eric remembers seeing Gil’s painting in prison, citing the event as the moment he realized art was his own calling.
Eric said that Hendrick taught him “what art was all about.”
Under Gil’s tutorial and apprenticeship, Martinez learned the basics of painting, color, tone, and perspective. Yet his artistic appetite craved for more.
“I was introduced to the great artists of the past from Hendrick, but I found myself reading art textbooks and magazines such as Art News, Art in America, and Southwest Art to discover what was happening in the current art world,” Eric told me.
As it turned out, Martinez’s ten years in prison afforded him both formal (from Gil) and informal (his own studies) training. Yet prison also imbedded in him many of the symbolic motifs used in his art: freedom, time, choices, crime, and forgiveness.
Eric describes the creation of this painting as “a defining moment in my journey. Finding my voice was an amazing experience, and it was now time for me to put my voice into my art.”
The Passion of Christo is a self-portrait of Eric, resembling Jesus. Eric is in prison with paintbrushes in hand. The symbolism is deep, the painting full of allegory and personal insight. It is an amazing work.
Shortly after the exhibit of The Passion of Christo at the Albuquerque Museum of Art, Eric and I met in my office. For over an hour we talked about his life, his art, and his passion to help other prisoners find a voice through art.
Not only was I impressed with Eric’s use of metaphor and symbolism in his paintings, I was struck by Eric’s new-found purpose in becoming the best artist he can be -- and here’s the noble element -- part of his becoming a great artist is to help others.
Eric told me that he dreamed of hosting a “Conviction Series” exhibit. This exhibit would highlight incarcerated—or formerly incarcerated artists, helping give them a meaning and purpose.
My second contact with Eric came in May of 2012. Over the phone he told me that he was to host the first “Conviction Series” exhibit at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and he invited me to attend.
In June 2012 my wife Melanie, and I, headed to exhibit to meet up with Eric.
As I viewed the 20 paintings and drawings, one painting caught my eye.
Once Eric arrived, I had to ask him about the work.
“It’s called Pawn’s Exit,” he told me.
“And what’s it about?” I asked.
“I began this painting right before I was released from prison,” he said. “It was my last work in the penitentiary.”
I then asked about its meaning.
“It’s about light at the end of the tunnel; about freedom, the end of a journey,” he said.
“You will notice that there are two hallways: one off to the right that you can’t see; its shadowy and dark. It represents the past, that which has come and gone. The second hallway leads to the open door, where light and an open window wait.”
“And the pawn and checkerboard floor? What are they about?” I ask?
“I use the checkerboard in much of my art. It represents maneuvering; choices, and the games people play. In prison -- and in life -- choices are made, some good, some bad. In this painting the choices have led up to the moment of freedom.
“You will notice that the pawn is 54 spaces from the door. I painted in the pawn when I learned that I had 54 days left in jail. The choices that led me to prison were now leading me out. The solitary pawn is now on a journey towards independence.
“In prison you can feel like a pawn, moved about; not knowing where you are, when you get out, and what tomorrow holds. So the use of the pawn in the painting is symbolic of life. But you notice that the door in the painting offers hope and new beginnings, as portrayed by the light and window.”
I notice that you have a surrealistic clock on the wall, reminiscent of the great Spanish painter, Salvador Dali. It reads, 10:00 o’clock, but its melting. “What’s this about?” I ask?
“I use the number 10 in many of my painting. It was the sentence given to me: ten years. But in this painting the 10:00 o’clock is melting, because my time in prison is coming to an end, my prison journey is melting away. In prison, time is elusive. It comes, goes, and doesn’t have the same bearing it does on the outside. So my concept of time is changing with my coming freedom.”
There are a few other techniques that stand out to me: the use of light and dark and the texture on the wall. “Any thoughts on these?” I ask.
“The use of light in hallway -- coming under the outside door and from a window that can’t been seen -- represent freedom, hope, and a new life. The use of darkness and shadows in the other hallway, which can’t be seen, represents the past and poor decisions.
“Concerning the texture on the dark hallway wall, it has an interesting story, a great mistake. Because we had to ship our artwork out of the prison facilities, the texture you see is actually plastic wrapping marks. Since this was my last painting done in prison, I didn’t have enough time to properly let it dry. I wrapped it in plastic and sent it to my family. When I unpacked it, the plastic wrapping left a great texture on the wall. I suppose one can find meaning in this as well. For now, it’s a happy mistake.”
In several of the paintings I notice particular artistic influences, besides Hendrick Gil, are there any other artists you resonate with?
“Yes, as you mentioned, I use elements of surrealism as portrayed by Salvador Dali. I also use hints of Picasso in my art. So, I’d say these are two are my greatest influences.”
As we walk down the line of artwork, Eric comments on various other pieces: “The Trap” (where he uses an image from Picasso’s Guernica) and “Sand of Missoury,” a word play off of the prison name he was in Missouri. In “Sand of Missoury” he used sand from the volleyball court at the prison as texture.
I asked about the name, “Sand of Missoury.”
“This particular painting,” he says, “was created at the Missouri Federal Penitentiary, where many sick prisoners were brought to die or get medical attention. It was a real sad place. So I thought the word-play fit what I was feeling. The use of the sand from the volleyball court is a touch of hope, of freedom. I could leave all the misery of the prison and go outdoors, playing a simple game or sit in the sun.”
About this time, a camera crew began filming Eric and listening in on our conversation. Likewise, an artist friend of mine began making astute comments concerning his art. One comment in particular she mentioned wrapped up Eric’s art:
“Eric, you have the subtly of a poet. You draw us in with great surprise.”
I liked that. So did Eric.
As it happened an artist in another field, poet, Carlos Contreras, was on hand, being one of the sponsors of the event. After a brief conversation, he gave me one of his booklets of his poems.
As I read the poems later in the evening, a stanza struck me as a wonderful summary of the day’s event -- and Eric’s artwork -- in particular:
There's something different
Contreras’ poem hit a cord: there’s something different about Eric’s work; something felt; occupied space with important ideas to communicate through the medium of painting.
Sometimes ten years produces insight and endurance in ways beyond explanation. This is true with Eric "Christo" Martinez’s art.
You can view more of Eric’s work by clicking here: http://ericchristoart.zenfolio.com
(1) (Carlos Contreras, Piecing Things Together, 2011)
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